When kids swear

Kids need to understand the impact of their words

Six-year-old Evelyn was hanging out in the front yard with her mom and some kids from the neighbourhood when she decided to show off the new word she’d learned. It started with “f” and ended with “uck,” and it certainly got a reaction from the other kids.

“The other kids looked at me and asked, ‘Did you hear what she said?’” recalls Wendy McDonnell, Evelyn’s mom. “I don’t get too excited about swearing — Evelyn is my third child — so I just said, ‘I guess she learned a new word today.’” Evelyn tried out the word a few more times — to much giggling from her friends.

McDonnell’s matter-of-fact response may have been a factor in Evelyn’s moving on to another activity. Parent coach Dulcie Gretton in Calgary says that with children this age, trying out swear words is normal — but a strong reaction isn’t likely to be helpful: “A heated or intense reaction from a parent almost guarantees that the offending word will be used again.”

On the other hand, simply ignoring the words isn’t fair to the child, says Gretton. “The truth is that your child’s language is bound to be offensive to some, and how we express ourselves creates an impression.” As a parent, you have to make sure your child is aware of this, and help him use language appropriately. Here’s how:

Stay calm

Lindsay Jones* says she was shocked when her seven-year-old daughter, Stella, lost her temper and started shouting at her — using words Jones didn’t even realize Stella knew. “I couldn’t believe the language that came out of her mouth,” Jones says. “My first reaction was ‘How dare you talk to me like that!’ But I realized her emotions were out of control and if I exploded back at her, it would only get worse.” Instead, Jones stayed calm until the storm had passed.

Be curious

“Pay attention in a curious way and see if you can sort out what need your child is trying to meet by swearing. Is it a need to be heard, to feel powerful, to gain acceptance?” says Gretton. He may simply be trying out a new word, or trying to figure out what’s acceptable and what’s not. Knowing what’s going on will help you decide the best way to respond.

Be honest

There are many situations where swearing is not acceptable, and your child needs to know what the expectations are. You might not care too much about the occasional cuss word, but others will. “Talk to your child about the uniqueness of swear words and how they affect people. If swearing doesn’t bother you, explain that it bothers others,” says Gretton. There are consequences to using this language that kids need to know about: It may cause some adults to lose respect for them, for example. And swearing at a teacher can mean a detention or other punishments.

Provide alternatives

This point goes back to Gretton’s earlier recommendation about figuring out the underlying need behind your child’s behaviour. If you think he’s trying to get your attention, for example, you could discuss other ways to do that — and make sure you respond when he says, “I need you now” as you’ve requested. When Stella used swearing to express her anger, Jones spent some time (after they’d calmed down) talking with her about more appropriate ways of getting those strong feelings out. “I told her that she could tell me she was mad, but not use that language,” says Jones. “So she started to stomp around instead. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the foul language.”

Honour your own feelings

Not overreacting to swearing doesn’t mean you have to put up with a barrage of curse words every time your child is upset or wants to show off, especially if these words really bother you. “Let your child know that when swearing starts, the conversation is suspended until more respectful conversation is possible,” Gretton says.

Be realistic

“Consider the cultural context,” says Gretton. It’s pretty much impossible for kids today not to hear swearing (and other forms of offensive language), and they are inevitably going to try the words out.
Jones adds: “Some things are just wrong, period, like hurting other people. But swearing is more situational. If you are visiting Grandma’s house, swearing is disrespectful and it will upset her, and that’s wrong. But if your child and a couple of friends are playing in the yard and they start trying out some of the swear words that they’ve heard, I don’t think that’s a big deal.” Your goal is not to eradicate all X-rated language from your child’s vocabulary, but to teach him what’s appropriate.

That’s what McDonnell did after Evelyn’s friends had left. “I said to her, ‘I know you were having fun with that word when your friends were here, but some of our neighbours might be upset or shocked to hear it.’” And for the most part, McDonnell says, Evelyn has taken that to heart. Not long after, as they drove to visit grandparents, McDonnell heard Evelyn swearing repeatedly in the back seat of the car. When asked what was wrong, Evelyn said, “Oh, nothing, I’m just getting this out of my system before we go see Grandma and Grandpa.”

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